Take a look at your bedroom. Is it scattered with laundry? Adorned with photos? Are you only leaving a sliver of space in the closet for your partner’s clothes? These seemingly mundane domestic scenarios may reveal a surprising amount of information about a couple’s relationship, according to a forthcoming study led by Lindsay Graham, a psychology graduate student in the College of Liberal Arts.
In collaboration with Sam Gosling, professor of psychology and author of “Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You,” Graham and her team of student researchers will leave no knickknack unturned as they search for signs of a happy home — or possibly trouble in paradise.
We recently caught up with Graham to talk about her preliminary findings. Read on to learn more about her study — and why common household arrangements provide some startling insight into a couple’s relationship status.
Briefly describe your current research with couples’ living spaces.
Home environments are very important to people, meeting both their practical and psychological needs. One common challenge that many new couples face is deciding how to integrate their individual possessions and preferences into a shared space where they can both feel “at home.” Sometimes this process goes smoothly; sometimes it does not.
Surprisingly, very little is known about how couples create a shared space together. How do couples make decisions about the design of their home? Whose stuff goes where? How do they create an environment they both love? These are the sorts of questions Sam Gosling and I are hoping to answer in our latest study looking at the expression of couples’ personalities in their homes.
How do you collect data in, say, a bedroom?
First, we enter the room and take photographs of the space. We take 360-degree photos (to get a feel for the room as a whole), and we take close-range shots of everything so we can see all of the interesting details, like titles of books and CDs, what the photographs look like, etc. Next, our team of coders fill out surveys describing their overall impressions of the space in terms of ambiance (how cozy, colorful and decorated it is) and the emotions they feel the space conveys (e.g., romance, relaxation). The coders also systematically document the physical features of the space (type of flooring, windows, wall colors) and the items (photographs, flowers, clocks, etc.).
We document only the things that are visible — so we never open up closed drawers or cabinets. This whole process takes anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes, depending on how much stuff the couple has in the space.
In addition, we are also interested in the characteristics and behaviors of the homeowners. So the occupants complete a set of surveys about themselves and their partners. The surveys include questions about the type of impression they wish their space portrays to others and the emotions they want to express in it.
What does a “man cave” say about the quality of a couple’s relationship?
This is a question we hope to address. Anecdotal evidence suggests it is important for both couples to have at least some area that they can call their own, but we won’t know for sure until we have some data.
How can something as simple as pictures on a wall give away clues to who we are and what’s important to us?
Each of the items you display in your spaces can potentially broadcast something about your identity, or how you think, feel and act in everyday life. Some items owe their presence to making “identity claims” — that is, sending deliberate signals about your values, goals, preferences, etc. to others.
A good example might be a religious person displaying religious icons or an avid sports fan displaying emblems of their favorite teams. Other items in the space are designed to make you feel a certain way, so you might display photos of a beach where you had a great vacation to remind yourself of the happy times you had there, or a memento given to you by a dear relative.
Other items give clues because they reflect your behaviors — so the arrangement of space might be quite different for extraverts who have crafted their living room to afford entertaining others versus spaces belonging to introverts who have designed a space where they can quietly curl up on the couch together and read a book. Each clue is another piece of a puzzle that together reveals a lot about the occupants and the kinds of lives they live.
Although you’re only in the preliminary phase of your fieldwork, have you come across any surprising findings?
We have noticed that photos seem to be quite important in spaces. Couples seem to be all or nothing — meaning that they tend to either have no photos at all or lots of them. We are looking forward to learning about what the presence or absence of photos says about how couples relate to one another.
You also study virtual personalities, particularly among gamers. Do you see a common denominator in how people portray their personalities in their real-life and virtual spaces? Any differences?
We know from our work that people express aspects of themselves and their personalities in the environments they inhabit — whether that’s in physical spaces like your home and office, or virtual spaces like your Facebook profile or online gaming environments.
One interesting finding from our work in virtual spaces is that although the expression of personality is present, the impressions are not always valid. Most virtual spaces are “hybrid spaces” — meaning much of our online social network overlaps with our offline social network (i.e., many of your Facebook friends are people you have actually encountered and interacted with in your offline life).
However, there are certain environments — like the online role-play game World of Warcraft — where you may have no expectation of ever meeting the other people you are interacting with virtually. It seems that in this particular environment, the impressions of others are less accurate and people are more flexible in the ways they express their true personalities.
A version of this story originally appeared on Life & Letters.